A Journey of a Lifetime Down the Colorado River

Photographer Forest Woodward’s short film follows his father down the river 43 years after his first rafting trip.
May 3, 2015·
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Sometimes it takes a personal and intimate account to explain the importance of something as grand as the Colorado River.

That’s what photographer Forest Woodward depicts in his latest film, The Important Places.

The short documentary follows Woodward’s father, Doug, on a 28-day rafting trip down the river some 43 years after he first ran its rapids as a young man.

This time, his son joins the 70-year-old on the voyage—two men at different stages of life, recapturing a poem Woodward’s father wrote for him in 1986, the year he was born.

It reads: “In youth, you will learn about the secret places; the cave behind the waterfall, the arms of the oak that hold you high, the stars so near on a desert ledge—the important places. And as with age, you choose your own way, among the many faces of a busy world, may you always remember the path that leads back; back to the important places.”

The poem and the unearthing of old film footage from his father’s first river trip inspired Woodward to set out on the journey with his dad.

“Maybe, just maybe, if I can bring back together these two things that were young once—my father and the Colorado River—I can somehow travel back in time, to learn something of who my father was,” Woodward says in the film.

Here, Woodward talks to TakePart about rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and watching his father relive the experience.

TakePart: In the film, you and your father both identify the Colorado River as an important place—a place your father was returning to and you were experiencing for the first time: What do you think made it an important place for your father?

Forest Woodward: There’s a point in the film where I think you can see the answer to that question in the way he looks at the canyon. There’s a deep awe, a feeling of smallness, and yet, as he so eloquently puts it, “we’re all still a part of it.” So, in that smallness, the feeling of the waves crashing against him in his homemade boat, the sheer magnitude of nature.... I think for an East Coast kid, that had a profound effect on him. Heck, east or west, north or south, the canyon has had that effect on all of us.

TP: What made it an important place to you?

Woodward: Dad. I don’t know when I first became aware of the canyon’s existence, but I was young, probably five or six, watching Dad’s slides and listening to his stories in our living room. For me, the canyon and my Dad are inseparable entities. Getting to experience the canyon for the first time at the age of 27, with Dad and I sharing a raft for 28 days, I was able to feel the power of the canyon that he had described. The Colorado River has transformative properties...and I don’t mean that in just a geological sense.

TP: What was the most surprising or unexpected part of your 28-day trip?

Woodward: Well, aside from the fact that Dad said yes to coming in the first place? Realizing two ends of a spectrum—seeing him striped bare and vulnerable at times and grinning and strong at others, flowing with the cadence of the river, still learning, still seeking out new experiences.

TP: The film melds together your personal story and family connection to a river and canyon in great need of environmental protection and restoration. Do you see your story as one of many to influence people about the importance of conserving places like the Colorado River?

Woodward: Well, that’s certainly our hope. I had thought to make a sort of home video...an homage of sorts to Dad and the river and canyon. But when American Rivers [a nonprofit conservation group] called me up and began explaining the current threats to the canyon and how they thought sharing our story could help...well, that was the impetus to make something that would be shared beyond the confines of our living room back home.

TP: You mention that water was a constant in your youth. For the Colorado River, water was a constant, too, but drought and human demands have managed to drain all of the water out before it reaches the Sea of Cortez. Did you see any of the effects humans are having on the river during your trip?

Woodward: Releasing with the pulse of new water from the dam actually meant that a lot of the traces left by earlier parties in the summer were wiped clean—sandbars replenished, campsites washed clean. All in all the canyon itself has been remarkably preserved, thanks to the incredible efforts of a number of groups and individuals. I also think part of the reason it has been taken such good care of is that the canyon has an effect on anyone who sets foot in it...you want to preserve it, you can feel its significance, that there is something sacred there that is not for us to mess with. That said, looking from the bottom of the canyon up toward the proposed sites for the Escalade and imagining the impact that would have was deeply unsettling.

TP: Did the making of this film inspire you to search out ways to restore the Colorado River? What type of work can be done to preserve this important place?

Woodward: Absolutely. Making this film was a good first step for us. The film doesn’t touch on the threats that are currently surrounding the canyon, but we’re really hoping folks will be inspired to educate themselves on the issue. The Colorado is a river that will likely always be targeted by folks who have never set foot at the heart of the canyon or stood on the dry delta where it longs to meet the sea, people who have never felt or acknowledged their own insignificance and thus seek to profit from the desecration of a national treasure. Sign the petition on the American Rivers site, spread the word if you feel inclined, and don’t forget about the other wild rivers and important places in your own backyard.